98 Percent of Packed Lunches Unsafe for Kids to Eat

by Beth

How to keep your kids lunch safer

Over 98 percent of packed lunches for preschoolers were deemed unsafe to eat in a recent study published in Pediatrics. The study measured the temperature of 1361 perishable items packed in 705 preschoolers’ lunches. Only 22 items were kept stored at a safe temperature for consumption.

Sometimes the source of the issue was obvious; 39 percent of the lunches were not packed with ice packs. In some cases items such as teething rings and juice boxes were used as “cold packs.” Using just a thermal lunch carrier, as 91 percent of lunches were packed in, was not enough, either, to keep foods safe.

Other sources of the issues were a lot harder to understand. For example, 90 percent of lunch items packed with multiple ice packs were still at unsafe temperatures. And, 11.8 percent of lunches were stored in a refrigerator, but still had temperature issues.

So, what’s happening here? How can parents keep packed lunches safer?

  • Pack it cold. Keep it cold.
    Placing warm items into a lunch sack with the cold items may cause them to not stay cold enough to be safe. For example placing a warm apple in the lunch alongside the sandwich that needs to stay cold will cause the sandwich to elevate in temperature, or placing cold lunch meats in room temperature breads just before the lunch goes to school.Pack the lunch the night before, and place all items in the refrigerator overnight, even items that do not have to be refrigerated such as the bread for the sandwich.
  • Think about safe temperature zones.
    Use a lunchbox with two compartments, one that stays cold for only cold items, and place room temperature items like a granola bar in the room temperature compartment. It will be easier to keep the cold items colder and safer.
  • Use the safer types of lunch boxes and multiple ice packs.
    Use a well-insulated cooler-type lunch box with multiple, large ice packs, preferably lead-free with BPA-free containers. However, if you know your child’s lunch will be stored in a refrigerator, the insulated lunch box may prevent the lunch items from being chilled well, too. The key is knowing the lunch box will be placed in the refrigerator promptly if you are not going to use and insulated carrier and ice. In the study, researchers noted that teachers “often failed to use the available refrigerators and left lunches at room temperature for an average of 2 hours before refrigeration.”
  • Keep it cold longer before you pack it. Pack the cold lunch items from the refrigerator directly into the lunch box with ice just before leaving home to minimize the time your child’s lunch is exposed to unsafe temperatures.
  • Toss the leftovers for safety.
    Tell your child to discard the leftover food after eating, so you know your child doesn’t snack on the leftovers later when they are not safe to eat.
  • Consider packing less perishable items. If you are concerned, or can’t keep the lunch cold enough, pack lunch items that are less perishable. Think nut butter instead of meats or cheese. Avoid things like mayo and eggs. Try bananas or oranges, or grapes instead of cut melon. Have your child buy cold, unflavored milk at school if available.

These tips were kindly reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Shu, pediatrician, CNN Health Correspondent and author of Food Fights, Baby and Child Health, and Heading Home with Your Newborn.


Temperature of Foods Sent by Parents of Preschool-aged Children Fawaz D. Almansour, Sara J. Sweitzer, Allison A. Magness, Eric E. Calloway, Michael R. McAllaster, Cynthia R. Roberts-Gray, Deanna M. Hoelscher and Margaret E. Briley Pediatrics; originally published online August 8, 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2885

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6 Responses to 98 Percent of Packed Lunches Unsafe for Kids to Eat

  1. If 98% of packed lunches were truly unsafe, there’d be a lot of dead and sick kids. Why don’t we read about these? Seriously, where’s the autopsies, etc., from this?

    Or, perhaps this is just another Fear Everything article from our wondrous media?

    P.S. I bet quite a few of those “packed lunches” have contents that have “extended” shelf life…how, oh how are they ignored in the data?

    P.P.S. Saddened that the Cleaner Plate Club has a post like this.

  2. bethb says:

    The study was in a nationally recognized medical journal, Pediatrics, so you might want to ask the doctors these questions! Many of any issues from these lunches would be the common stomach bugs we all seem to get and get over, you know, “It must have been something I ate.” So, there would not likely be any autopsies. I am not sure what you mean by extended shelf life here. I don’t know of too many ways to extend perishable items from bacterial growth at room temperatures, and the items tested were perishable items. Basic food safety training from culinary school notes that these foods would be unsafe to consume after four hours of storage at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. The studies were based on two hours because of the young age of the kids, preschool, who are less resilient than adults. I would think lunches that were packed without ice packs and not at a correct temperature would be a health issue after four hours definitely.

  3. bethb says:

    And by “health issue” I mean being up at three am changing and washing sheets, bathing your child (and self after the clean up) after your child barfs in bed. Or, losing a day’s work to be at home with your kid who just covered the gym floor in used Cheerios or suddenly needs an extra set of pants. Ugh. So, yes, mostly minor bugs are the risk here, but I’d rather NOT get barfed on (again) if I can avoid it. Laugh a little, take these things down a notch. We’ve all been here, and I sure can do without a return trip.

  4. Well, I agree that sometimes these type of studies are a bit over the top, however, it never hurts to read this type of advice to keep in mind when packing your children’s husband’s or whoever’s lunch. I wonder how much lunch would fare?

  5. bethb says:

    Mirjana, exactly! Basic food safety is always a good idea. No one likes a stomach bug. I don’t worry as much about the packed lunches if I follow the right steps above. What I hoped to help convey in the post is the source of the temperature issues and how to be safer. The research they did never focused on HOW the lunches could have been made safer. I had a top pediatrician (Dr. Jennifer Shu) who publishes books for AAP review my points as well.

    The things that make me concerned are the real food safety issues like the ones that prompt meat recalls and can cause hospitalization or worse. Those I can’t fix with an extra ice pack even though I wish I could.

  6. Calicat says:

    Ugh! Exposure to some bugs are good for you. Prevention and overprotection is what has today’s children sickly. You can’t build up a resistance if you’re never exposed in the first place. Do you remember being sick frequently after lunch when you were growing up? I wasn’t and none of my friends were either. Now, at work, many of my younger co-workers are sick all the time and they marvel that most of the time, I do not get stomach viruses or colds. King Krak may have gone to extremes with the sick/dead kid reference, but generally, I agree with his point.

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